The Rimini Mission

11/3/2021–4/24/2022

MATERIAL
HISTORY
CONSERVATION

The Rimini Altarpiece

About the exhibition

It is one of the world’s most important late medieval works of art made of alabaster and a major work in the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung: the Rimini Altarpiece (c. 1430). As of 3 November 2021, following extensive restoration, it will once again be on view in the museum’s outstanding permanent exhibition. Over the past four years, a wide range of conservation and restoration measures have been carried out on the Rimini Altarpiece, primarily a particularly gentle surface cleaning using laser technology as well as gypsum-saturated agar gel compresses. In addition, a comprehensive art-technological examination of the work was carried out. Not only were fundamental insights into the technical construction of the altar gained, but further scientific research by the BRGM (Bureau de Recherches Géologiques et Minières) in Orléans also revealed the region where the alabaster stone was quarried – results that will provide new impetus for art historical research into the oeuvre of the Master of the Rimini Altarpiece. In a concentrated special exhibition, the results of this international restoration project will be made impressively visible to the public. In four sections, the Liebieghaus scholars Harald Theiss (Head of Restoration) and Stefan Roller (Head of the Medieval Collection) explain the characteristic properties of the material alabaster, as well as the individual steps of the art-technological analysis. In addition, they illustrate the challenges of restoring this highly sensitive material and address questions of sculpture technique, as well as the original coloration of the artwork. The highlight of the special exhibition is the presentation of the masterpiece in a custom-made 4.0 × 3.5-metre display, the form of which is based on contemporary Dutch altars.

The exhibition is supported by the Kulturfonds Frankfurt RheinMain gGmbH. The preparatory restoration work and the publication were made possible by the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung. ‘MISSION RIMINI’ received additional support from the Städelscher Museums-Verein. A publication will be published by Deutscher Kunstverlag to accompany the exhibition, summarising the results of several years of research supplemented by art historical contributions. It is the first monograph on the Crucifixion Altar from Rimini.

Curators: Dipl.-Rest. Harald Theiss (Head of Conservation, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung) and Dr. Stefan Roller (Head of the Medieval Department, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung)

More about the project

    The Artwork

    The Rimini Altarpiece is one of the most elaborate and best-preserved late medieval figure ensembles made of white alabaster. The centre is a Crucifixion of Christ made of several blocks, flanked on each side by six apostles. The fully rounded and once partially coloured sculptures originate from a retable in the pilgrimage church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Rimini-Covignano. They were, however, created in the southern Netherlands around 1430, possibly in Bruges. The great art-historical importance and the uniqueness of the Rimini Altarpiece is indicated by the fact that, internationally, the work lends its name to a large part of the alabaster sculptures of the early fifteenth century. The artist attribution ‘Master of the Rimini Altarpiece’ can thus be found in museums and art collections from Warsaw, Berlin, Munich, and Barcelona to Paris, London, New York, and Los Angeles.

    The highly idealised sculptures of the Rimini Altarpiece largely follow the characteristic formal aesthetics of the so-called Beautiful Style, which is also known as the International Style due to its Europe-wide spread between c. 1380 and 1430. However, the realistic rendering of several of the anatomical and physiognomic details of the two crucified criminals indicates a stylistic change. A new interest in the observation of nature is evident here, which can also be observed in the Dutch painting of Jan van Eyck, Robert Campin, and Rogier van der Weyden at the time and was ground-breaking for the art of the following decades.

    The Restoration Project in an Exhibition

    The restoration project, which began in 2017 and was funded by the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung as part of the ‘Kunst auf Lager’ (Art in Storage) initiative, is now coming to a close with the special exhibition and the accompanying publication. The Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung acquired a laser especially for cleaning the highly sensitive material. The public was able to follow the work in the museum’s demonstration workshop and through educational and mediation opportunities. In recent years, together with further restoration measures, distortive additions to the work of art which, from today’s perspective, were questionable from a conservation point of view, were remedied. Furthermore, in cooperation with the research laboratory of the BRGM Orléans and in close collaboration with the Musée du Louvre, it was possible to determine the exact stone substance. Alabaster is one of the most sensitive types of stone. As a crystalline form of the mineral gypsum, it is both water-soluble and not heat-resistant, as well as extremely susceptible to pressure and fracture. The Rimini Altarpiece impressively reveals the artistic-aesthetic possibilities this material offers the sculptor. It can be carved and sanded quickly and unusually finely and filigree with light pressure. For the restoration of the masterpiece, various challenges arose from the susceptibility of the material, since traditional restoration procedures are usually accompanied by damage to the stone.

    In the exhibition, the damage to the Rimini Altarpiece is presented in detail, and an overview is given of the complicated conservation requirements that were often not recognised, taken into account, or misinterpreted when treating alabaster in the past. The method developed by the restoration team of Harald Theiss and Miguel González de Quevedo Ibáñez and tested by external scientists using lasers and plaster-saturated agar gel compresses is explained and comprehensibly illustrated with numerous work samples. It is explained step by step how this procedure made it possible to clean the delicate alabaster without damaging it in any way. Furthermore, it is explained why and how the additions from more recent times, which were in need of revision, as well as numerous repaired fractures, were remedied and renewed. The art-technological examination of the Rimini Altarpiece also revealed numerous unanswered questions about the sculptural production process, the original optical appearance of the surface finish, and the colouration of the medieval alabaster sculpture. The scholars were able to provide initial answers to these questions with an experimental sculptural reconstruction of the figure of the apostle Bartholomew from the altar ensemble, as well as through a detailed practical study of the surface finish and colouration of first-class medieval alabaster works.

Gallery